The Pittsburgh Penguins finally had a first round draft pick and they traded into the third round to snag a potential first round talent. The Penguins used the 2019 NHL draft to begin remaking themselves as the NHL games changes, too.
The Penguins are reforming in the direction their head coach, Mike Sullivan has been pushing. After months of signs from the Pittsburgh Penguins which of pointed in one direction, and incredulity of patrons who believed the Penguins divorce from the purest philosophy was the cause of the problems, not the solution, the Penguins made a statement in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Loud and clear.
The Penguins did not pick three straight power forwards by accident. They didn’t stumble into three broad-shouldered, aggressive kids who play the right way because no one else wanted them. The Penguins sought thunder over lightning. Samuel Poulin, Nathan Legare, and Judd Caulfield were taken in rounds one, three and five. The Penguins had to give up three other picks to snag Legare in the third round.
Each is over six-feet tall. Each is over 200 pounds. And at least the first two cited a need to improve their skating.
“I don’t think it’s about speed. Obviously, they’re a little bit heavier. They have to work on their quickness a little bit, but their low game and full speed are good,” Penguins director of Scouting Patrick Allvin said. “A couple of years and they’re going to fit perfectly.”
The Penguins first signal of change came early in the regular season when head coach Mike Sullivan implored his team to “play below the dots,” and “be hard to play against,” because “that’s where the game is going.”
Now, they have a couple of kids with a heavy low-game and good top end speed. If first round pick Poulin doesn’t make the show with credibility, Legare might (Legare and Poulin may have a very similar path and timeline).
“(Legare)’s got a shooters mentality. A super competitive kid. He plays the right way, he goes to the net,” Penguins Director of Scouting Patrik Allvin said. “He plays hard. Obviously, 45 goals speak for itself.”
The last three Penguins additions on defense have been large bodies or physical: Jack Johnson, Marcus Pettersson, an Erik Gudbranson. The forward crew is moving in the same direction. The Penguins acquired the large and strong, yet surprisingly quick on his skates Nick Bjugstad. Jared McCann’s tenacity and gritty play also fits “tough to play against.”
There is no escaping the last two Stanley Cup champions were hammers. Washington and St. Louis each pounded opponents and opened the game with skill. The Penguins will unlikely go full St. Louis (you never go full St. Louis), but try to perfect the hybrid approach with players who fit Sullivan’s hard-nosed, honest approach.
And Penguins scout Luc Gauthier’s words tell an even bigger story.
“The main quality of both guys is they have a lot of character,” Gauthier said. “They compete every night. That’s our philosophy with the Pittsburgh Penguins: Draft guys with character, and skill and speed.”
And for good measure, the Penguins stocked the pond with Caulfield, too. It isn’t inconceivable that a first-round pick or even a similar third-rounder will be given the chance to make 2019-2020 team, too.
For those wondering why the evolution, look no further than the Penguins success. Everything has an equal or sometimes more equal reaction. Teams not only had to compete with the speedy forecheck of the Penguins, but they also had to stop the Penguins, too. The 2017 Penguins which won their second consecutive Stanley Cup was battered. The Penguins push to get larger was not an attempt to punch back or even so much as to push back, but to withstand it.
The Penguins couldn’t get any faster, but other teams could. As the speed gap narrowed, so too did the Penguins advantage. Other teams could pound the Penguins AND keep up. So, the Penguins have been moving towards being the best team with speed, toughness, and skill. They certainly have an abundance of skill.
Even the way the game is played changed. Forecheckers are on defensemen within a heartbeat now. The old school thinking that defensemen can play either side is no longer true; defensemen do not have the time to flip to their forehand to move the puck.
Mike Babcock was the coach which sounded that alarm–no more lefties on the right side if at all possible. The Penguins didn’t adhere to that new corollary until midway through last season and you saw the results (ahem, the first half struggles of Jack Johnson, Jamie Oleksiak, even Olli Maatta).
Forwards who finish their checks and put the puck in the net are the best of all worlds. And that’s where the Penguins are headed. They’re not looking for a few speed guys, a few jam guys and some skill. They went for the whole package on Friday and Saturday in Vancouver.